Archive for July, 2022

Berlin Tourism

In the last week of my visit to Berlin I was able to do some great visits to interesting places.

On Monday I caught the train south from Berlin to the city of Dresden.  Known as ‘Florence on the Elbe’, Dresden was renowned for its beauty, but was completely destroyed by aerial bombing in 1945.  This tragedy was captured by Kurt Vonnegut in his famous tragicomedy novel Slaughterhouse Five, based partly on his time as an American prisoner of war in the city.  I wandered around the rebuilt old city, including a visit to the Green Vault, a museum full of expensive trinkets set up by the king, with large elaborate pieces of amber and ivory and jewels and various baroquoco pieces of kitch.  I actually found this museum somewhat revolting, putting on display the arrogance of the rulers who saw their collecting hobby as more important than work on government.  Seeing this opulence helps to understand why communism became such a popular mass movement of revolt.

On Tuesday I walked three kilometres from my hostel in Kreuzberg to the Pergamon Museum, where the heyday of German archaeology from a century ago and older is on display.  The Germans went to Turkey and Iraq where they excavated large ruins and took them back to Berlin to display.  This includes the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, which I saw, and the Pergamon Altar, which has been removed from display for a decade until 2025.  Reading about the altar I was interested to see its marble frieze depicts the Greek myth of the battle between Giants and Gods, which I had studied in my Masters thesis in philosophy.  Here is my summary of what Plato had to say about this myth, a short story that encapsulates much of the controversy surrounding philosophy as an intellectual discipline.

In the Sophist, Plato compares the effort to make sense of the world to a battle between giants and Gods, in which the difficulties of philosophy are discussed in terms of the quarrel between materialism and idealism. The giants “define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word”, while on the other side the Gods “are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless Ideas” (246b). What the giants “allege to be true reality, the Gods do not call real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming” (246c).

Plato believed that both these ways of thought had something important to offer, but he attacked the materialists for being violent and uncivilised (246d) and for thinking that “whatever they cannot squeeze between their hands is just nothing at all” (247c). He says, “it is quite enough for our purposes if they consent to admit that even a small part of reality is bodiless”, arguing that this must be admitted in the case of qualities of the soul like “justice and wisdom or any other sort of goodness or badness” (247b).

On Wednesday I caught the train to Potsdam, former home of the Prussian Kings, just outside Berlin.  With Berlin at the peak of its summer beauty, Potsdam was packed with tourists.  I wandered fairly randomly by tram to the palace of Sans Souci, ‘without care’, where King Frederick the Great spent his summers.   It includes a rather ironic lithograph portrait of the king by Andy Warhol.  Once again this palace has an extraordinary opulence.  Then I wandered through the large palace grounds and ended up at a Bach organ concert at the church of Christ Lord of the Universe before strolling back to the tram and train.  Potsdam was where Stalin, Truman and Churchill/Atlee agreed the post-war division of Europe.

Thursday, my last day in Berlin, turned out to be a highlight.  Starting at the post office to send a couple of postcards, I then went to Checkpoint Charlie, the former American controlled crossing point into East Berlin.  I visited the museum which provides a comprehensive history, with several cars and small aircraft that were used to smuggle people out of the captive nation.  The contrast between today’s integrated Berlin and the bleak history of its division is quite stark, giving pause for thought about the ongoing political barriers maintained by walls in other countries such as Korea and Palestine. 

Then I went to the Jewish Museum, which totally spooked me out.  You go underground to this crazy architecture of long sloping corridors, then up steps to the museum which explains the whole historical tragedy of the Jewish presence and genocide in Germany.  Ashkenazi was the name for all the Jews north of the Alps.  They mainly lived in Germany where Yiddish developed, until most were expelled to eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages.  The most creepy thing was all these photos of the Nazi Holocaust, such as signs in towns saying Jews Not Welcome, a massive list of the steadily growing restrictions on Jews after 1933, and then a big set of photos of the expulsion of the Jews from a small town, purportedly for resettlement but actually for extermination.

Finally, the actual cultural highlight of my whole visit was the Berggruen Museum of Modern Art.  Heinz Berggruen was born in Berlin in 1914 and fled to America in 1936. Returning to Europe after the war he amassed a collection of art by Picasso, Klee, Matisse, Cezanne, Miro, etc now valued in the billions, which he subsequently sold for a tenth its value to the German nation as a gesture of reconciliation.  There was hardly anyone there when I visited, and the paintings are on magnificent display, so I took the opportunity to photograph most of them, and will gradually add more at my Facebook page.

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Talking About Religion in Berlin

This post is about a tour of some Berlin religious sites and a conversation about theology during the tour.

During the WSCF Assembly I went on a tour looking at religion in Berlin with a focus on interfaith relations.  Our tour guide Uwe was from the German SCM (ESG).  He had given a Biblical reflection the day before at the Assembly, on gender in the book of Judges, a rather gruesome topic which you may like to read up on, notably the escapade of Jael at Judges 4:21.

First Uwe took us to the House of One. This remarkable initiative is a planned multi-faith centre with separate worship spaces for Jews, Muslims and Christians joined by a shared meeting area – see animation.  Our group heard an introductory talk and did a site tour, located on the ruins of Berlin’s oldest known church.  The architectural design reflects how a physical space can enable new cultural practice, given that dialogue and cooperation between different traditions seem so difficult to achieve in our contemporary retreat to tribalism.   The House of One community have laid their foundation stone and raised the money to complete the building in the next few years.  I asked why the name is in English. Uwe explained that there is no German translation of the strange and impossible English word “of”.  Our group had a long conversation with the guide, who was Jewish, including about the growing return of anti-Jewish sentiment among young people in Germany.  Encouraging dialogue and personal contact is essential to foster shared understanding.  I am wondering if a similar faith space might be possible at the Australian National University where I manage the chaplaincy. 

The Friedrichswerder Church, our next visit, is one of these magnificent old buildings the Germans have lovingly restored to its original glory only to find the collapse of faith has meant there is no demand for its original purpose as a house of worship.  But never mind, the architecture creates such a glorious atmosphere of reverence and wonder that they have devoted it to something they really can worship – German marble sculpture.  Some of my favourite sculptures were of Achilles, Cain as a bub, and a bust of the great German scientist Humboldt.  Old cathedrals really knew how to do light and acoustics, and this one shows off the art very well.

Bust of German scientist Wilhelm von Humboldt

We called in for lunch at the café run by the Berlin Student Christian Movement.  It is a lovely street frontage with a kitchen. The German SCM, or Evangelische Studierenden Gemeinde, has active branches in universities all around the country and is a very impressive organisation.

I had the opportunity at the ESG cafe to share views on theology with Patrick Ramsey, assembly delegate from the UK, who is doing a PhD in geometry.  More on that below.

German SCM Cafe in Berlin

Finally, we visited the tragic site of the former central Berlin synagogue.  It was the biggest worship building in the city, with 3000 seats, reflecting the high prominence of the Jewish community until the Nazi destruction. 

The heart-rending scale of personal and cultural loss from the Hitler genocide continues to be a big source of mourning and grief in Berlin.   The synagogue would have been burned down in the nationwide pogroms on Kristallnacht in 1938 except the police dispersed the Nazis and called the fire brigade. We wandered through the empty ground where this magnificent place of worship stood until it was destroyed by British bombing in 1943.  Now the front half is all that is left, enough to provide a clear sense of the former scale. The design allowed for the old Jewish tradition of separate seating of men and women. A haunting photo in the synagogue museum showed the main room full of thousands of men, all well dressed and looking distinguished, educated, wealthy, humane and compassionate. Most would have died in Auschwitz, in utter shock at their bewildering betrayal by the nation they had loyally served.

My chat with Patrick as we walked between these sites in Berlin gave me a good chance to explain my views on theology.  It is not often that I find anyone who has capacity to talk sensibly about theology without strong preconceptions. Religion is such an emotional topic, where childhood ideas and cultural conventions well up from the unconscious to take on an accidentally absolute status. As well, church people often tend to be bigoted. One infamous example of rank prejudice is from the leading Anglican theologian NT Wright, who said he would no more debate some critics of his faith than expect an astronomer to debate authors who claim the moon is made of green cheese.  Fear that any different idea is likely to be crazy is a barrier to courteous conversation and mutual learning.

Patrick’s PhD level studies in advanced mathematics seemed to protect him somewhat from this hostile syndrome.  He was able to ask some astute questions that did not derail the dialogue, a rare thing in my experience.

I explained that my interest is to place Christian faith in the context of science, methodically questioning all assumptions.  This has led me to a completely different understanding of Christian origins from the orthodox story.  For thousands of years, religion was intimately connected to astronomy.  This makes it plausible that astronomer-priests noticed the slow movement of the stars against the seasons, as that was essential for them to time planting and rituals.  We have no direct evidence of this observation of seasonal shift of the stars as it affected culture. There is, however, abundant indirect evidence.  The Gospels are full of stellar images that are best explained by knowledge of this seasonal movement, known as precession of the equinoxes.  The presence of these camouflaged images in the Bible reflects that the authors regarded actual observation of the visible starry heavens as a way to interpret the order, grandeur, stability and glory of God, in ways that have been largely forgotten. 

Ancient astronomers observed the precession of the equinoxes into the constellations of Pisces and Virgo at the time of Christ. This observation is reflected in messianic expectations around that time, and in numerous Gospel images such as the loaves and fishes, the beginning and end, the fisher of men, as well as the whole theme of the BC/AD turning point of time and numerous obscure visions in the Apocalypse. 

I mentioned to Patrick that John’s account of the cleansing of the temple has Jesus sweep out the sheep and cows, matching the astronomy of the replacement of the zodiac ages of Aries the sheep and Taurus the cow by the new age of Pisces the fish.  He asked, very reasonably, why then is Jesus described as a sheep as well as a fish?  This is the sort of question I like.  My reading draws from the symbolism of Jesus as the first and last, represented by the Greek letters alpha and omega seen in numerous Christian symbols such as the Chi Rho Cross. This theme of the unity of the beginning and end creates a cyclic vision in which his imagined role as the logos or incarnation of eternal reason meant Jesus could equally be represented by the sheep and the fish as symbols of the closing cosmic age and the opening cosmic age.

I further explained to Patrick my view that a secret wisdom mystery community developed the cosmic vision of Jesus Christ as universal saviour in continuity with ancient oral religions from numerous countries. This mystery tradition was savagely suppressed as the Roman Empire co-opted Christian ideas for its military security, leaving almost no sign of the existence of the older symbolic mystery teaching.  The main surviving indications of this cosmic origin story after a millennium of Christian censorship are fugitive traces in the Bible, texts that only survived because their real meaning was well hidden.  As well, there are large mysterious gaps in Christian history. Most importantly, the justification for this scientific hypothesis is that it provides a simple and coherent explanation of all the available evidence.  Astronomy provided the original intellectual structure of Christianity, without any need for literal miracles or supernatural assertions, reading the whole Bible as natural parable.

What I like about this approach is that it provides an elegant basis for Christianity to justify its core ethical ideas against an accurate and plausible ancient cosmology, with a systematic theology that furthermore provides an equally compelling explanation of the ideas of the Second Coming, imagined as the dawn of the zodiac age of Aquarius.  My experience is that Christians tend to greet such conversation with a deathly silence, as it generates such cognitive dissonance they do not know where to begin to discuss it.  I mentioned to Patrick that one of the problems is that three rival traditions contributed to Christian origins, philosophy, religion and astrology.  Each is hostile to the other two. That makes the effort to compare and integrate them today as an explanation of Christian origins quite unpopular and difficult.

Some extra photos including me with Saint Gertrude, patron saint of pest exterminators.

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The Tree of Life

We have reached the end of the General Assembly of the World Student Christian Federation.  It has been a magnificent and inspiring event to attend, with really valuable contacts and discussions.  It is amazing to be part of a global network involving student organisations from almost every country that allows free Christian expression, with notable absence the USA.  I had the privilege of drafting the official WSCF public message to report on the Assembly, and look forward to sharing that when it is published. We included the image from the keynote sermon describing the WSCF as like a living forest of trees, reflecting my theme today of the tree of life.

The main negative of the assembly from my point of view was that I caught a nasty cough, thankfully not COVID, so could not participate in all sessions.  Luckily the bit I missed was mainly just a boring constitutional review. 

The great value of the WSCF is its focus on faith from the margins, including people who are excluded by their societies, or who live in places that are excluded by dominant world systems.  WSCF has a genuine and practical respect for diversity.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post, we heard directly from people who face persecution for their identity, and who find support in what our draft assembly message calls “inclusive and liberating Christian faith grounded in critical Biblical reflection.”  While this principle of inclusion naturally faces tension, such as the difficulty that marginalised Christian churches in Muslim majority countries have in affirming Western ideas on sexual inclusion, it is highly affirming and valuable as a basis for solidarity, love and hope.

For this post, I will reflect on the opening sermon at the Assembly, presented by Rev Peter Ciaccio, a Waldensian Methodist Minister from Italy, about the Tree of Life. Peter focussed on the strongly urban nature of Christian faith, and how this creates a series of tensions and dilemmas.  Modern life is not primarily agricultural.  We have jumped from Eden to the supermarket, via towns and cities.  In the Biblical myth of Genesis 4:17, the first murderer, Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, also founded the first city, named after his son Enoch, in the Land of Nod.  Peter described this story as symbolising a debate between rural and urban visions of human flourishing. 

I find this all fascinating in a broader historical sense, showing how Biblical analysis can place and deconstruct prominent cultural stories into an accurate historical framework.  In this case social pressures were produced by the emergence of agriculture, metal, writing and cities, as Bronze Age technologies that would overwhelm the ancient hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle from Palӕolithic times. 

These pressures of technological change provide context for the story of Cain and Abel.   It is telling that Cain was described in Gen 4 as a tiller of the soil, representing the settled agriculture that enabled cities and kings, while his murdered brother Abel was a herder, part of the older nomadic clan culture that was largely destroyed by the technological productivity of emerging urban civilization.

This all plays into some quite profound theological concerns that have long exercised me regarding the underlying meaning of Biblical myths.  Cities flourished because of having what Gen 4:15 calls “the mark of Cain”, which the Bible says meant anyone who killed Cain would receive sevenfold vengeance.  That is exactly how urban civilizations treated their nomadic precursors, extending into modern colonial times with the European conquerors of the rest of the world using their urban technological productivity to inflict genocidal retaliation against indigenous resistance to theft of their land. 

The Mark of Cain, according to Gen 4:14, meant Cain could no longer see God.  Cain’s power of technology came at the price of spiritual death, gaining the world but losing his soul (Mark 8:36).  That is the central story of the fall from grace into corruption.  Technological progress produced spiritual depravity.  This human defilement led also to the curse of Cain (Gen 4:10) from killing his brother, that the earth cried out against him.  My view is that this problem played out into Christendom, with alienation between spirit and nature generating a dominant church theology that thought it was totally separate from nature.

Peter Ciaccio went on in his sermon to describe the Biblical tension between rural integrity and urban immorality.  God made the garden but people made cities. King David came from the country as a shepherd but was corrupted in the city by royal power.  The prophet Amos was a herdsman called to the city. Jesus mixes elements of the stories of Adam, Moses and David with their rural origins.  Bethlehem was an insignificant village, outside urban power, unknown to Herod.  Nazareth was remote from the city of Jerusalem (indeed so remote that archaeologists have not even been able to prove it existed at the time of Christ).

The integration of these visions of the city and garden comes together in the visions of the Revelation, with Peter suggesting the city of God with its foundations of twelve jewels coming down from heaven shows God accepts us as city dwellers. The River of Life and the Tree of Life are at the centre of this symbolic holy city, and they explain what this new reconciliation involves. The Tree of Life grows on both sides of the river, unlike any real tree, and has twelve fruits, one for each month, ‘for the healing of the nations’. 

My own interpretation of this mysterious image of the Tree of Life, which I have been crying about in the wilderness for decades, is that it is an obvious symbolic metaphor for the visible heavens of the night sky as the manifestation of the glory and grandeur and order of God. The zodiac stars in their twelve monthly groups appear six on one side of the celestial river, the Milky Way, and six on the other side, in exact match to the Biblical text.  I am yet to find any Christian willing to even discuss this interpretation, which seems to reflect how deeply counter-cultural its natural theology is against the prevailing supernatural theories of God. 

Peter explained how the return of the Tree of Life at the end of the Bible completes the book as a well-structured story, a ring composition signalling closure of the narrative, after the previous appearance of the tree in Eden as the symbol of divine presence and grace from which humanity was excluded at the fall. The Tree of Life has evolved in the story from the centre of the garden to the centre of the city, reflecting human urban evolution. 

Meanwhile, our dominant fallen culture has created a ‘cartel of domination’.  Peter mentioned money, power, greed, class, blood, nation, family, binary ideology, misogyny and patriarchy as factors supporting this cartel.  What matters now is to create space for the Tree of Life, as a holy symbol of how we belong to God, a symbol with power to heal divisions and sorrows and broken hearts, bringing peace and justice for humans and nature.  At the centre of our global village, the Tree of Life is a powerful image, a vision to support our sacred struggle for social, economic and climate goals.

This sort of radical theology is what I love about the Student Christian Movement, opening ideas with deep and far reaching implications for social transformation.  There is little public oxygen for such conversation, and I would love to see WSCF do more to encourage it.

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